Sheyi Bankale (SB): How would you describe the role of the contemporary arts museum in the twenty-first century?
Hans-Ulrich Obrist (HUO): We live in a very complex world, complexity is the answer. First of all, a big change has occurred in our lifetime, that of a major geographical shift […] I think we can clearly say that Kasper Köenig’s ground-breaking show Westkunst summarized very well the situation from the Second World War to the Eighties and I think what has happened since then is a true, polyphony with dynamic art centres all over the world.
Heike Munder (HM): I think you are completely right but I have the feeling that the globalization has never reached the world of the museums seriously. If you look at the major museums, they are still quite classical in their Western-taste approach – even if they incorporate once a year non-Western positions either in group shows with a calculated percentage or in a solo show. But all in all the proportion is small and following the development, the last fifteen years it is striking how conservative the art world is in selecting artists from elsewhere, who might not fit into the common language and discourse of the Western world.
HUO: I agree with you, it is very slow but then that is what I’ve said, these things have to be in the long duration, the idea at the beginning of something which is going to get much stronger and […] it is ourselves today, as part of our institutions to try to make contributions to that.
HM: Of course, but I am just perhaps a bit more sceptical. I remember working together with the sociologist Ulf Wuggenig and the artist and curator Fernando Alvim on a book illustrating African art, which is called Next Flag: The African Sniper Reader. Ulf Wuggenig wrote in his essay about the changes in the art world and the chance of non-Western art and artists to enter the global art system. The results have been not too encouraging – even today only one or the maximum two artists from each country, be it an African country or an Asian country or a South American country, have been able to pass the gates of the subscribed system which controls the selection. Which means that only one person really has the chance to enter and the others not. You see I am quite critical about inclusion in this regard. We need to look at what has happened only in the past fifteen years or before and think what will be the changes in the future? […] The expectations and the behaviour of the visitors have changed. They are visiting exhibitions to communicate about art or other things and want to be amused and inspired. In times of modernist dominance the museum visitors were expected to act cold and distant, and with reverence to the artwork and the museum. The museum much resembled a church!
HUO: You know the question is what is changing in terms of twenty-first century art centres and museums. The architect, Cedric Price’s major but unrealized work, the Fun Palace (1961-1974), is relevant, it was planned to be an interdisciplinary multi-purpose complex for theatre and projects. The Fun Palace, which Price developed out of dialogues with Joan Littlewood, was to be a flexible structure in a large mechanistic shipyard in which, according to changing situations, many structures could be built from above a twenty-first century cultural center that will utilize calculated uncertainty and conscious incompleteness to produce a catalyst for invigorating change, while always producing the harvest of the quiet eye. Price’s key idea is that the building can be altered whilst it is occupied. The Fun Palace as a responsive building shall respond to the necessity to connect disciplines and different practitioners in changing parameters.
HM: But you should also never forget the power of museum collections, as long as they have been selected wisely – fortunately there are some! Sometimes you find the most interesting results if you ask artists to choose from the collection and even more so if you open up your deepest storage to them. You will figure out that they will of course select their personal heroes along with works which fell in oblivion in storage for a long time because there was no connection to a discourse […] Nevertheless the most important procedure in my work is the process of always going back and forth in history and never allowing myself to stand still. In this way, I don’t think that the lifespan of a museum will ever be short.
SB: Now, to move this on to the perspective of Zurich: how will the museums in Zurich fit into the future, how does Zurich engage on a global platform?
HM: In the art world, Zurich became very important in the last fifteen years. It is often named with London and Berlin as the third city of importance in Europe. Of course there are many factors that contribute to this new situation. It’s the art institutions with their great selections, the galleries with the power of the art market and of course there is a big scene behind it, with powerful curators, artists, collectors, writers, gallerists, students and an active general public. In the Eighties and the beginning of the Nineties, it was the opposite of what I mentioned, more or less all of the artists left to study in Vienna, Hamburg or Düsseldorf. There was no big scene of any kind. But there was a moment things changed, it started slowly with the foundation of the Kunsthalle in 1985 followed by the opening of the gallery Mai 36 and others shortly later. But ten years later things developed rapidly with the opening of the Löwenbräu in 1996 – art students decided to stay and to study in Zurich, they opened up alternative spaces. Also the art market through the platform of galleries became enormously important today and a number of great collectors had a big impact on the cultural scene.
SB: You have been traveling regularly as a visitor here, how would you describe Zurich during this period, Hans Ulrich?
HUO: I think Zurich has always been interesting. Coming from Switzerland and growing up in Switzerland, the reason why I left is I needed a big city and moved to Paris. I was born in ’68 in Zurich and I was born a second time in Zurich in ’86 when I went to the studio of Fischli and Weiss, and so that was the moment of being for me and meaning of wanting to work with artists. Zurich has always had great artists…
HM: You’re right, Zurich had indeed always had great active people like Bischofberger, Bice Curiger and Jacqueline Burckhardt the founders of Parkett, Walter Keller co-founder of the publishing house Scalo, or artists like Pipilotti Rist, Ugo Rondinone (even if he lives now in New York), Fischli and Weiss or the photographer Walter Pfeiffer. Did you know that the cultural patronage of the Migros cooperative started the first contemporary art institution in Zurich in 1978? It was called Halle für Internationale Neue Kunst (InK) and was run by Urs Raussmüller.
HUO: InK, it was pioneering history!
HM: Yes, it was enormous important, unfortunately just ran for a short period, because the building was demolished. But in this period the basis of our collection started and eventually lead to the founding of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst in 1996. But back to the InK, it was such an important place because it operated totally differently compared to other institutions, the idea was process-oriented. There was never an opening or a real end to the show; it was a continuous flow of installation and de-installation. There was no entrance fee, it was expected that you visit several times and hang out there to participate in talks and events. It is still a good role model for many places.
HUO: There are many pioneering moments in Switzerland one can go back to, and the whole idea of Zurich playing such a pivotal role in the twentieth century avant-garde. Zurich was always embedded in a network of other cities, if it’s Bern or Basel or Winterthur or Lucerne, Geneva or Lausanne or Saint Gallen.
SB: I thought that was extremely interesting when you mentioned how Zurich is within the matrix and make up of other cities. Actually what is the potential of the contemporary art landscape of Zurich and how does it measure up in comparison to other major international cities?
HM: Let’s say from ’96, when the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst started here in the Löwenbräu with the other institutions Kunsthalle Zürich and Daros Foundation and the galleries Hauser & Wirth, Eva Presenhuber, Peter Kilchmann, Bob van Orsouw and Brandstetter & Wyss and de Pury & Luxembourg – there was still very little going on outside this new center. It was the Löwenbräu that became the core attraction for all the artists and art lovers. It was the major place to go and hang out as well. In the last six years the scene in Zurich developed in a very positive as well as alternative way, which I think is great. One alternative space after another opened up, like first Les Complices, White Space, La Perla Mode, Dienstgebäude or the youngest Darsa Comfort. For a long time Esther Eppstein founder of Message Salon spearheaded this wave but now there are five or six alternative spaces that continue working on a regular basis. Also the gallery scene rapidly expanded with some fantastic new galleries in the last four years. The great thing is that it feels like the art scene is getting bigger and bigger with every space and every new generation.
SB: I just want to pose a statement to you: Alfred Barr had originally proposed that the Museum of Modern Art, New York, sell its entire works after fifty years to remain wholly wedded to the new. What approach is desirable to you to embrace the new?
HM: You know what I found strange on this question, it is the idea of limiting yourself, even if I understand Barr’s idea quite well to renew yourself all the time. But somehow I feel it is wrong, as collections are often full of great surprises. It becomes important if you think that the whole history of art is not linear, and if you work for example with contemporary artists, they will always bring in new references from the past that might become important afterwards again. Paul Thek is such a striking example, who had his comeback through Mike Kelley.
HM: To make another example, for me the museum that is incorporating this is the Museum Ludwig directed by Kasper König. Every time I go there – I love the collection – I get totally inspired by singular artworks where you never think about positioning it in such a way or knowing about it so well. For example I found fantastically surprising works by Olaf Metzel, whom I only knew from his public projects before. These visits always lead to new ideas; and I need to repeat myself: the museums should not tell a linear story of art.